"He could have been one of the greats," I said to no one in particular as news of Norman Rangi Berryman's untimely death filtered through the press ranks gathered at a horse track to watch the Blues place a bet on a new head coach.

Berryman, the All Black, Maori All Black, Taniwha, Chief, Blue and champion Crusader was just 18 when he made his debut for North Auckland in 1991, back when the Taniwha mascot still cocked a leg on the towering goalposts before the game and the old stand still creaked and moaned in the midwinter winds that whipped off the upper Whangarei Harbour and chilled down the hot dogs.

I was in the fourth form at Bream Bay College then - Year 10, it's called these days - and we played rugby on Saturday mornings for Mid-Western in places like Waipu and Maungaturoto, Ruawai and Maungakaramea, Kaihu Valley and Mangakahia.

We got around on the back of Johnny Holder's ute and we always liked it better when he had the canvas cover on so we could roll ciggies and actually light them. It's not the easiest thing to spark up a rollie on the back of a Toyota Hilux doing 110 on the open road, you know.

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Johnny died some years ago. Norm died yesterday. Both died too soon, of course.

We loved going to Okara Park back then, still muddy from the morning, and we loved Norm Berryman. Hell, we loved them all, really - Ian Jones and Warren Johnston and Ziggy Seymour and the Barrell brothers and whichever Going or Woodman was in the team that year. They - and all the others - were the giants of our day. They walked in the muddy footsteps of all those Cambridge Blue giants before them. They wore the giant kauri on their chests. They were our heroes.

They still are.

I remember sitting on that great grassy bank of Okara Park on old blankets and waiting for it to all ultimately unravel. I remember watching Stormin' Norman, with his fresh face and crewcut - the long hair came later - running over people, and around people, and through people. We always talked about him as we headed back to Grandad and Nana's after the game to warm up in front of the fire while the mutton roasted.

I can't tell you how many times the Taniwha lost games we thought they would win. But by God they lost beautifully! They had an uncanny knack for the last-minute forward pass, or missed tackle. They conceded penalties on two-point leads, and knocked the ball on over the goal-line after 20 phases of pick and drive with the game on the line. And do you know what? None of those losses wiped the smile off Norm's face.

David "Dooley" Holwell was out on his farm yesterday when he took my call. He's lost two former teammates this month. "Geez, Sumo," he deadpanned, "I'm gonna go build me a box just in case I'm the next one to go."

He remembers losing beautifully with Norm Berryman. He remembers one occasion when Northland were just about to get a first win over North Harbour in 1998 and Walter Little carved them up right on fulltime and snatched the victory for the visitors.

"We were all devastated by that," Dooley told me, "but then I looked up and saw Normy standing there genuinely cracking up laughing."

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He remembers watching Norm in a club game for Hora Hora. He scored a try beneath the posts, walked back to the 22-metre line, lobbed the ball behind him and kicked a dropped goal conversion with his heel. Then he cracked up laughing.

"He was the most skilled player I have ever seen," Dooley told me. Then he said something about beef prices being up, and started his tractor.

Norm was special. He was everything we tried to be, us 14-year-old kids on the rugby fields of Northland. He was everything we tried to be, and he wasn't even trying.

And now he's gone. But he's left behind something that no coach or selector or beautiful loss could ever take from him; the infectious and insatiable appetite for life and laughter, for friends and for whanau: the immortal spirit of the game.

Could have been one of the greats? Hell, he already was.